Laughing Boy’s Shadow
S/L Hard Cover – $40.00, S/L Trade Paperback – $19.95
Reviewed by Nickolas Cook
With Steven Savile’s new novel, Laughing Boy’s Shadow, Horror World proves itself, yet again, quite up to the challenge of finding the jewel amongst the genre’s all too frequently rough stones.
But this praise comes with a warning:
Laughing Boy’s Shadow is not the ‘feel good book of the year.’
In fact, it’s downright a downer of a read. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, as we are tossed headlong into the existential decline of Declan Shea, a seemingly normal guy who finds the city’s secrets won’t stay buried forever. During this ride, the reader is expected to spend most of the book rooting for a man who, essentially, is not a great guy to begin with.
Not that Declan Shea is a monster. At least not at the beginning of the book.
But his sometimes uncontrollable actions become the heartless template for how he reacts with humanity. It isn’t easy to love him. But that’s what the author set out to do: write a story about a man who is the monster, the bad guy, all the while trying to engender empathy for his plight. On that score, job well done, Mr. Savile.
Steven Savile’s Laughing Boy’s Shadow has been compared to similar dark fare by the likes of China Mieville, Harlan Ellison, and Tom Piccirilli- translated: very, very grim in aspect, angst ridden, lightless fiction, filled with almost unredeemable characters. This is urban horror/fantasy of the first degree, written by a man who has been writing professionally for decades, and deserves his success.
Strong characterization, coupled with some darkly poetic descriptive passages, make this the sort of read you almost want to savor instead of gulping down in one sitting. The author’s obvious musical knowledge is a huge plus for someone who loves to see lyrics used as preface to chapters (which I do), and comes in handy as his main character, good old Declan is a somewhat successful musician.
However, Laughing Boy’s Shadow is not without its weaknesses.
There are several plot points that just plain have no relevance to the later narrative, and could have easily been disposed of. To this reviewer, too many scenes come off as set pieces, meant only to shock and disturb, and they add very little to the rest of the story.
Were these moments meant to add a sort of nightmarish surrealism to the narrative?
If so, I didn’t feel engaged by them. They were disturbing, but not imperative.
Another issue that may challenge some readers is that this is not a streamlined story by any means. It takes nearly 90 pages for anything truly meaningful to happen. I won’t say what it is, because that would ruin it for you. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it, fair reader. I’ve read Savile’s current fiction, and it’s easy enough to see this novel is by a very different Steven Savile than the one we all know and love today.
Savile’s afterward helpfully offers some insight into these concerns.
It seems this book was written long ago, when the author was still cutting his chops on the written word. It also seems it was written while he was going through a rather rough patch in his personal life. It’s easy enough to figure this out by simply reading the story, but this reviewer appreciates it when a writer shares the germination of his/her works. There’s a sense of brutal honesty about Savile’s description.
But Savile’s masterly work isn’t the only consideration here, because there’s also Gary Braunbeck’s great introduction, and Robert Sammelin’s art – both of which are huge pluses for the small press collector.
Hopefully, this type of uncompromising fiction will be Horror World’s cornerstone in the genre. It’s something horror readers need badly.